Only the lucky few ever get the chance to direct NFL franchise, and after years of switching from team to team and front office job to front office job – not to mention the multiple failed GM interviews during that period – the Texans have finally given Brian Gaine the reins.
While it’s safe to say that no GM job is a walk in the park, this one is far from the hardest he could have been given. He enters his first season with a strong defensive front seven, run game, receiving corps, and one of the best young QBs in the game. He even inherits $63 million in cap space he has to play with.
However, as is the case in any team, there are plenty of holes to fill – and unlike most other teams, this may be tougher than it would appear on the surface.
Lasting damage from the Rick Smith era must be repaired
While the whole hullabaloo around owner Bob McNair's "inmates" comments disappeared relatively quickly, on the surface at least, it has been reported that the damage is far from fixed and some major repair work will be needed.
As has been pointed out since, the Texans may have to flex some financial muscle more so than other teams in order to compensate and still bring in several notable FAs this offseason - but the issue doesn't stop there.
It has also been said that "the Texans aren't interested in any players who participated in pregame kneel-downs in protest of police brutality". If this is the case, then the Texans can essentially say goodbye to any hopes of winning in the next few years. While this policy is unlikely to ever be officially confirmed, the fact of the matter is that the days are gone where the players just play on a weekend, train on a weekday, and keep quiet off the field. They have the right to speak as they wish, and with the developments in social media, not to mention the rise in their status as symbols in the public eye, they will continue to use their platform as means of conveying their political beliefs.
Then there is the issue of the relationships between the players, and the front office. In a recent podcast hosted by former Texans running back Arian Foster, he and former teammate Duane Brown discussed Brown's last few seasons in Houston, the deterioration in the relationships as they Texans began to worry more and more about his age and declining health, Brown opting to raise a fist during the national anthem to protest police brutality, and the now infamous McNair comments.
One overarching sentiment that particularly stuck out from the podcast was the lack of dialogue between the front office and players. They felt that the board weren't being completely open with the players, not giving them reasons as to why they were hesitant about new deals, keeping their distance when the Brown asked the Texans to hold a press conference so he could explain his decision to protest, or why some were eventually cut.
But what really seemed to stick in the throat with these players is the lack of response by the Texans as a whole when their 'bigger stars' left, with Foster saying "the way I left the city was kind of weak, the way 'Dre [Andre Johnson] left the city was kind of weak, the way you [Brown] left the city was kind of weak". Brown added that "They didn't acknowledge Andre leaving until he retired". this is another issue which Gaine will have to look into - the player/personnel relationships and communications. The only way they will be able to get the most out of these players, and attract the top players is by showing that they can be accommodating, and they can be supportive and open to suggestions - unlike under former GM Rick Smith.
However, for the record I do believe that this message has been heard by the Texans as when they opted to cut linebacker Brian Cushing in February they were very public in their support for the former Texan and published numerous times of his highlights in Houston.
Regardless, with all these differing messes to clear up, it is down to new GM Gaine to relay the message that no matter what has been said in the past, under his guidance this organisation will promote free speech, and will cooperate and support its players. Otherwise, they can kiss goodbye to the majority of the FAs out there.
Ultimately though, there are three key steps which Gaine must now address if he has any chance of succeeding in Houston.
Key new deals
Yes, the Texans have plenty of cap space at the moment - but that is all about to change. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Jadeveon Clowney are due for new deals, and they will both be big. Expect Clowney in particular to bring in somewhere in the region of $16 million per season for around five-years, which would put him in the top five or so top paid OLBs in the league only really behind Denver's Von Miller.
Then there is the decision of whether or not to hand cornerback Kevin Johnson a long-term deal. The former first rounder is in the last year of his rookie-deal and enters this season after an injury-plagued year in which he was ranked 121st out of 121 qualifying corners by PFF in the 2017 season. This will be a tough decision, as while last season was poor by both his and all standards thanks to poor tackling, coverage, and general reliability, he has shown promise in the past - and with fellow CB Kareem Jackson likely being moved to safety, and an overhaul of their secondary seemingly about to take place, some consistency could be in order.
Speaking of, the Texans secondary was, to put it simply, appalling last season. Their passing defense ranked 24th in the NFL in yardage allowed, 22nd in the percentage of completions allowed, and joint 31st in total TDs allowed. Ouch.
It's safe to say that the losses of S Quintin Demps and CB AJ Bouye in free agency last year hurt them, not to mention the aging of starters Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph. This secondary lacks speed, youth, and depth.
Unfortunately, with no picks until the third round, Gaine has but two options - either search for diamonds in the rough in the later rounds such as Tony Brown from Alabama, Troy Apke of Penn State, or Nyheim Hines of NC State, and/or scour through free agency - which if we are being honest should happen.
Once free agency hits on March 14th, there isn't exactly a plethora of talent around, but there is enough, and thankfully for Gaine he has the money to outbid others. Likely targets include Malcolm Butler of the New England Patriots and Prince Amukamara of the Chicago Bears.
It will come as no surprise that the Texans must shore up their dodgy offensive line. After losing Duane Brown, their only proven lineman, this line was a shadow of its former self (not that it's been that great in a while anyway). As it stands, the only spot that you'd say isn't up for grabs is center, with second-year Nick Martin having well and truly nailed that down since the departure of Ben Jones. Otherwise, it could be argued that not one player in this offensive lineup is safe from the upcoming cuts.
While it appears likely that left tackle Chris Clark and guard Greg Mancz will return, other than them it is anybody's guess - and that is where Gaines comes in. When it comes to both the draft and free agency, he will have to be aggressive yet again and take this opportunity to make his mark on this team. Texans reporter John Harris has already mentioned that both Alex Cappa of Humboldt State and Joseph Noteboom of TCU are potential starters going forward, while the likes of Nate Solder of the Patriots, Luke Joeckel of the Seahawks, and Josh Sitton of the Bears all standing out as potential targets.
Its all down to Gaine
Its clear that Gaine hasn't walked into the easiest of situations - but he does have a lot to work with. Now that the coaching staff has been solidified with new deals, at least he can offer potential players stability, as well as bigger wallets. That being said, there will ultimately be two keys to his success in Houston - be aggressive in the market, and learn from Rick Smith's mistakes - otherwise, you can basically wave goodbye to the job before its even begun.
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